Shit People Say to People Who Care About Shit

Or, an incomplete list of responses I get when I talk about the things I care about.

“Yeah, well, what did you expect?”

That’s an easy one to answer. I expect better.

“So what, are you surprised?”

I’m not surprised. I’m angry. Those are not the same emotion.

Often people seem to think that just because you “should have” expected something, you no longer have the right to be upset about it. This is false. First of all, guess what–people get to feel however they feel about things. Second, the fact that this is “just how the world is” does not–and should not–mean that we shouldn’t care anymore.

In fact, if something unjust happens so often that you think I don’t have the right to be surprised about it, doesn’t that make it much worse than a random, one-off act of injustice?

“You’ll never change that anyway.”

Man, people have said that to literally every activist, every group, every cause that’s ever existed.

Sure, some failed. But most of those have simply not succeeded yet.

Besides, when I’m old and my kids and grandkids ask me what I liked to do when I was young, I’d like to say that I did something other than make money, go to the gym, and go out drinking sometimes. I hope I’ll be equally proud of the failures as I am of the successes, because as disappointing as it is to fail–as an activist or as anything else–trying really is better than sitting on your ass.

“But that’s just human nature.”

People often say that social justice isn’t worthwhile because it’s “human nature” to create unjust institutions and societies. Humans are naturally biased, they are naturally tribalistic and selfish, and so on.

I’m not sure I agree that “human nature” can be defined, but even starting from that premise, I don’t see how it leads logically to “social justice is a waste of time.” Even if humans are “naturally” one way, wouldn’t it be interesting to see if we can shape our natures and societies into something different?

After all, it’s “natural” for rivers to occasionally flood, but we build levees. It’s “natural” for humans to have disputes that they need to resolve, but we have a court system to help them do that. It’s “natural” for fires to sometimes happen, but we have firefighters to help put them out. It’s “natural” for some climates to be inhospitable to humans, so we use technology to make it easier for people to live there. It’s “natural” for people to get sick, sometimes fatally, but we have doctors, surgeons, vaccines, antibiotics, painkillers, MRIs, and all sorts of ridiculously high-tech stuff I’ve never even heard of to help diagnose and treat them so that they can live longer and feel better.

There isn’t a single other domain of human life and society in which we’ve decided to just throw our hands up and let what is “natural” control our lives. So even if sexism, racism, and other forms of bigotry are “natural”—which is, again, a premise I do not accept—I don’t see a reason to let that stop us from finding ways to eradicate or circumvent them.

“You’re just gonna make yourself miserable!”

This is a red herring. If these people really cared about my mental health–or knew anything about it–they’d listen to me when I say that what really makes me miserable is doing nothing to work on the issues I care about. How do I know? Experience.

I think we all sometimes have difficulty imagining how or why someone would hate the things we love or love the things we hate, but people are different. I cannot imagine a life in which I find activism boring or depressing, and I’m sure some people can’t imagine a life in which they find it inspiring, meaningful, and fun. But if you’re one of those people, you’ll just have to trust us when we say that caring about things doesn’t make us miserable. It makes our lives worth living.

Disregarding that, though, I’m not sure why it’s anyone’s business whether or not activism makes me miserable (unless they’re someone who’s actually close to me, in which case they’d know that it doesn’t). Plenty of people are sometimes miserable because of what they do, and as long as they knowingly and willingly chose that path, I don’t see a problem with it. It’s when people have no choice but to be miserable that I see a problem.

“Why are you making such a big deal about it? X Issue is more important.”

It seems to be a common misconception that if someone’s advocating about a particular issue, it means that they think that that issue is The Most Important Issue Of Our Time or whatever. Actually, no. For instance, you might be surprised to know that I don’t consider gender inequality to be The Most Important Issue Of Our Time, and I don’t think mental illness is it, either. If I had to choose, I’d choose environmental degradation and climate change.

But I don’t advocate on those issues because, frankly, I’d be shit at it. I don’t have the educational background for it, and I can’t get it because I’m spending my time studying what I need to for my career. More importantly, I just don’t have the passion for it. I care, to be sure, but I’m not that interested in the specifics of biology, chemistry, and physics involved, and I can no more force myself to be more interested in them than I can force myself to lose my passion for psychology and sociology. Why do I have this set of interests and not that one? Hell if I know. But I do know that I’ll be the most effective activist in the areas for which I have the most passion. I do a lot of activism around social issues primarily because I’m intensely curious and perceptive about the way elements of societies and cultures fit together and produce our lived experiences.

I’m sure there are activists who do think that their niche is the only one that matters, just as there are probably those mythical feminists who hate men and those mythical vegans who shove veganism down people’s throats (whatever that means). I don’t think that these people are nearly prevalent or influential enough to generalize from.

So, I don’t really care which issues are more important and which are less, not that there’s any objective way to tell, anyway. I’m going to do whatever I’m most suited for based on my skills and interests, and I know that there are bright and passionate activists working on the causes that I can’t work on myself.

“You’re just looking for things to be upset about.”

I can see why people might think this way. The more privilege you have on various axes, the less injustice plays a role in your daily life. (Or, perhaps, injustice plays a huge role in your life but you don’t realize it because you’ve been taught to blame yourself.) In that case, for you to see injustice in the world really does require going out looking for it.

But for many people, it doesn’t. A person of color need only get followed around in a store or stopped by the cops for spurious reasons or avoided by passerby on the street to witness racism at work. A trans* person need only get yelled at or attacked for using the “wrong” bathroom. A woman need only find that her insurance plan won’t cover birth control while male reproductive needs get covered. Do any of these people really have to “look” for things to be upset about?

Besides, so what if we are?

Telling an activist that they’re “just looking” for things that are broken in society is like telling a computer security specialist that they’re “just looking” for vulnerabilities in a piece of software, or telling an editor that they’re “just looking” for writing errors, or telling a surgeon that they’re “just looking” for tumors. Of course they are! Looking for them is how you fix them.

But so great is the bias toward “looking on the bright side” and being “positive” that people pressure each other to avoid the sometimes-unpleasant but absolutely vital process of exposing the ways in which we fail each other and finding ways to fix those failures.

Ultimately, these responses, this shit people say to people who care about shit, are all really ways of saying the same thing: “I don’t care.” “Yes, but I don’t care.” “Ok, maybe that’s a problem, but I don’t care.” “I don’t know enough about this to really have an opinion, but I don’t care.” “You can’t change this anyway, so I don’t care.” “This is too hard to change, so I don’t care.” “You have compelling arguments, but I don’t care.”

I actually wish people were more willing to come right out and admit that they don’t care, because then they can put it either of two ways: “I don’t care; can you explain to me why I should?”, or “I don’t care, so you might as well stop wasting time talking to me.”

I can work with one of those.

My Oppression Is Not Your Thought Experiment

[Content note: sexual assault]

There seems to be no shortage of people just itching for the opportunity to turn real, tragic human suffering into intriguing little thought experiments for their own amusement or political gain.

This time we’ve got a college professor attempting to make some sort of bizarre claim about drilling for oil using Steubenville and sexual assault:

Let’s suppose that you, or I, or someone we love, or someone we care about from afar, is raped while unconscious in a way that causes no direct physical harm—no injury, no pregnancy, no disease transmission. (Note: The Steubenville rape victim, according to all the accounts I’ve read, was not even aware that she’d been sexually assaulted until she learned about it from the Internet some days later.) Despite the lack of physical damage, we are shocked, appalled and horrified at the thought of being treated in this way, and suffer deep trauma as a result. Ought the law discourage such acts of rape? Should they be illegal?

[...]As long as I’m safely unconsious and therefore shielded from the costs of an assault, why shouldn’t the rest of the world (or more specifically my attackers) be allowed to reap the benefits?

Unfortunately for Steven Landsburg, the author of this rationalization, analogies only work when you know what the fuck you’re talking about.

Sexual assault isn’t wrong (just) because people don’t like it. It’s wrong because we have decided, as a society, that people’s bodies belong to them and only them. You cannot use someone else’s body for your own needs without their consent. You can’t harvest their organs. You can’t force them to get a piercing or a tattoo or a haircut. You (theoretically) can’t force them to have a child or an abortion, although we now seem to be getting closer and closer to forcing people to have children. You can’t compel them to undergo a medical procedure or experiment. You cannot go up to a stranger and touch their body. You cannot punch someone except in self-defense or, again, in a consensual setting. (Of course, all of this completely falls apart when it comes to children, which I think is ridiculous and wrong.) And you cannot use someone else’s body for sex without their consent. Your body belongs to you.

This, at least, is the ethical framework under which we normally seem to operate. It falls apart all the time, of course–with children, as I mentioned, and with pregnant women. It falls apart when we insist on the right to touch a Black stranger’s hair, and it falls apart when the police have been given the authority to use deadly force on innocent civilians. But in general, most of us have come to the conclusion that a just society is one that grants individuals the autonomy to decide what happens to their bodies, and that this power can only be taken away when there’s a compelling reason (i.e. the person is a child who is refusing medical care, the person has entered a coma from which they are extremely unlikely to return and their families now have the final say regarding their treatment, the person has committed a crime and is refusing to cooperate with the police, etc.)

That you feel like having sex with them and they’re unconscious so it won’t hurt them anyway is not a compelling reason. I refuse to debate this point. This is elementary.

Of course, Landsburg’s analogy fails on the other side, too, because people who criticize oil drilling generally don’t criticize it on the grounds of BUT IT MAKES TEH LANDSCAPES LESS PRETTY. But whatever.

This tendency to philosophize over real, painful, tragic issues that some of us are actually trying to do something about shows up all the time. It shows up during pro-choice activism. It shows up during suicide prevention efforts; I can’t count how often someone would appear on some post where I was discussing suicide prevention and attempt to engage me in some vague pseudo-philosophical ramble about whether or not it is truly ethical to prevent people who want to kill themselves from killing themselves, completely ignoring the fact that I am only here writing this by virtue of the fact that there were so many people who really didn’t want me to kill myself, once upon a time.

And it especially shows up when we talk about sexual assault and the proper way to respond to and prevent it.

I have spent a lot of time arguing about sexual assault with people who want to use all sorts of creative analogies about the violation of someone’s body when that person wasn’t (supposedly) doing everything in their power to prevent that violation. It’s like leaving your bike unchained! It’s like leaving your front door unlocked! It’s like leaving your keys in the ignition! In fact, it’s just like taxing someone, because money is just like bodily autonomy, so at best taxation is just as bad as violating someone’s actual, physical body. (Yes, that argument has been put forth in one of my comment sections. No, I won’t go dig it up.)

My body is not a bike. It’s not a house. It’s not a car. It is not money. Using my body without asking me first is not like robbery. It is not like taxation. You know what’s it’s like? It’s like sexual assault, because that’s exactly what it is.

To be clear, I don’t hate philosophy or discussions thereof. I think they can be really fascinating and useful. However, there’s a time and a place, and, in my opinion, an obligation to be sensitive when you’re trying to abstractly discuss things that actually hurt, traumatize, and potentially kill people.

First of all, do not attempt to insert yourself and your philosophical theorizing into spaces where people are trying to do activism. Philosophy can and should inform activism, of course, but when someone’s discussing rape prevention, that’s not the time to start pontificating at them about what rape really means and isn’t it just like a theft of property and whatnot.

Second, this is tangential to the main idea of this post, but very relevant anyway. Take special care when playing devil’s advocate. Tell people what you’re doing. Tell them you’d like to work through some possible counter-arguments and allow them to refuse. Why is this important? Because it’s so incredibly draining and hurtful for activists to be asked to listen to the same offensive and basic arguments over and over and spent their time and energy arguing against them, only for you to conclude with, “Oh, whatever, I was just playing devil’s advocate.” Cut that shit out.

Third, know what you’re talking about! Landsburg clearly didn’t. Or, if he did, he still managed to completely minimize that in favor of his convoluted view of rape-as-bad because people just don’t liiiiike it, in which case, should it really be illegal if it doesn’t cause them “Real Harm”? After all, it’s not illegal to call someone a poopyhead! So there. (I may be editorializing slightly.)

Fourth, take care that your philosophizing is not unintentionally contributing to the problem that you’re discussing. There is a long history of rationalizing away sexual assault, and Amanda Marcotte notes in her post:

Colleges in this country are suffering from a  rape problem that is all too real and not some kind of cutesy thought experiment. Rapists and their enablers are known to seize on claims like the one Landsburg is kicking around here, that it doesn’t count if you didn’t have to beat the victim to subdue her. In fact, one of the witnesses who saw the Steubenville rape but didn’t try to stop it used exactly that excuse: “It wasn’t violent. I didn’t know exactly what rape was. I thought it was forcing yourself on someone.” Having a popular professor casually endorse this rationalization through wanky and ultimately irrelevant thought “experiments” isn’t just offensive, but could be dangerous as well.

In other words, your fun little thought experiment might actually make things worse. It’s not just a fun little thought experiment, really, because ideas and attitudes have consequences out in the real world, into which Landsburg might consider venturing sometime.

How To Get People To Care When It’s Not Personal: On Rob Portman

I’m going to talk about Rob Portman now even though that bit of news is pretty old at this point. (Hey, if you want to read about stuff in a timely manner, go read the NYT or something.)

Brief summary: Portman is a Republican senator from Ohio (yay Ohio!) who used to oppose same-sex marriage but changed his mind when his son came out as gay. He said, “It allowed me to think of this issue from a new perspective, and that’s of a dad who loves his son a lot and wants him to have the same opportunities that his brother and sister would have — to have a relationship like [my wife] and I have had for over 26 years.” Portman is now the only sitting Republican senator to publicly support equal marriage, although there are other well-known Republicans who do.

To get the obvious stuff out of the way first, I’m very glad to hear of Portman’s change of heart. Really. Each additional vote for marriage equality matters, especially when it’s the first sitting Republican senator to do it. That’s cool.

However, this really doesn’t bode well for our politics. Most legislators are white, male, straight, cisgender, rich, Christian, and able-bodied. Unless they either 1) possess gifts of empathy and imagination more advanced than those of Portman or 2) have family members who are not those things, they may not be willing to challenge themselves to do better by those who aren’t like them.

Some identities are what writer Andrew Solomon calls “horizontal” identities, meaning that parents and children typically don’t share them–these include stuff like homosexuality, transsexuality, and disability. So there’s a decent chance that a given legislator may have someone with one of these identities in their family.

But other identities are “vertical,” meaning that they tend to be passed down from parents to children, whether through genetics, upbringing, or some combination. Race is obviously vertical. Class and (to a lesser extent) religion tend to be as well. How likely is an American legislator to have someone in their family who is a person of color? How likely are they to have someone in their family who is impoverished?

In fact, some of the most pressing social justice issues today concern people who are so marginalized that it’s basically inconceivable that an influential American politician would know any of them personally, let alone have one of them as a family member–for instance, the people most impacted by the war on drugs, who are forever labeled as ex-cons and barred from public housing, welfare benefits, jobs, and education. It’s easy to go on believing that these people deserved what they got–which they often get for crimes as small as having some pot on them when they get pulled over by the cops for no reason other than their race–if you don’t actually know any of these people. (Well, or if you haven’t read The New Jim Crow, I guess.)

Even with horizontal identities, though, relying on the possibility that important politicians will suddenly reverse their positions based on some family member coming out or having a particular experience or identity isn’t really a good bet. First of all, coming out doesn’t always go that well; 40% of homeless youth are LGBT, and the top two reasons for their homelessness is that they either run away because of rejection by their families or they’re actually kicked out because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. The fact that one of your parents is a prominent Republican politician who publicly opposes equal marriage probably makes you even less likely to come out to them.

And even if the child of such a parent comes out to them and nothing awful happens, people still have all sorts of ways of resolving cognitive dissonance. To use an example from a different issue, pro-choice activists who interact with pro-lifers have noticed a phenomenon that’s encapsulated in the article, “The Only Moral Abortion is My Abortion.” Basically, when some pro-life people find themselves with an unplanned and unwanted pregnancy, they sometimes find ways to justify getting an abortion even though they still believe it’s morally wrong in general.

Similarly, if you’re a homophobe and someone you love comes out to you as queer, that absolutely doesn’t mean you’re going to end up supporting queer rights. You might end up seeing that person as “not like all those other gays,” perhaps because they don’t fit the stereotypes that you’ve associated with others like them. You might invent some sort of “reason” that this person turned out to be queer, whereas others still “choose” it. You might simply conclude that no matter how much you may love someone who’s queer, it’s still against your religion to give queer people the right to get married.

Of course, when it comes to marriage rights, it’s not really necessary for that many more Republican lawmakers to suddenly discover that the queer people in their families are human too. The GOP will begin supporting equal marriage regardless (or, at least, it will stop advocating the restriction of rights to heterosexual couples), because otherwise it will go extinct. That’s just becoming the demographic reality.

However, equal marriage is really just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to abolishing a system that privileges straight people over queer people, and most of those causes aren’t nearly as sexy as equal marriage. Just look at the marketing for it: it’s all about love and beautiful weddings and cute gay or lesbian couples adopting children. Mentally and emotionally, it’s just not a difficult cause for straight folks to support. Who doesn’t love love?

The other issues facing queer people aren’t nearly as pleasant to think about. Who will help the young people who are homeless because their families kicked them out for being queer? Who will stop trans* people from being forced to use restrooms that do not belong to their actual gender, risking violence and harassment?

And, to bring it back to my earlier point: how likely are any Republican senators to have family members in any of these situations?

I don’t think Portman is a bad person for failing to support equal marriage until his son came out. Or, at least, if he’s a bad person, then most people are, because most people don’t care enough about issues that aren’t personally relevant to them to do the difficult work of confronting and working through their biases. And anyway, I don’t think that this has anything to do with how “good” or “bad” of a person you are (and frankly I hate those ways of labeling people). It’s more that some people are just more interested in things that don’t affect them personally than others.

Our job as activists, then, is to figure out how to get people to care even when the issue at hand isn’t necessarily something they have a personal connection to, because that won’t always be enough and because defining victims of injustice by their relationships to those who you’re trying to target has its own problems (which doesn’t necessarily mean we should never use that tactic, but that’s for another post).

I’m still trying to figure out how to do that, but I do have my own experience to draw on. As a teenager, I didn’t care a bit about social justice, but I did care about culture and sociology and how the world works. In college, I started to learn how structures in society affect individuals and create power imbalances, and I found this fascinating. It also brought into sharp relief the actual suffering of people who are on the wrong side of those imbalances, and before long I was reading, thinking, and writing about that.

Although nobody intentionally argued me over to this worldview, the courses I took and the stuff I read online seemed to take advantage of my natural curiosity about how society works, and eventually they brought me into the fold.

If you have any stories to share about how you started caring about an issue that doesn’t affect you personally, please share!

I’m Going To Rant About Those Little Equal Sign Facebook Profile Pics Now


Sources: here and here.

I get it. The cute little red equal signs all over Facebook today are an easy target. It’s not Real Activism. It doesn’t actually help anyone. Get off your ass and Actually Do Something for the cause. Right?

Yes, nobody should fool themselves that changing their profile picture will convince the Supreme Court to disregard Charles Cooper’s embarrassing performance today, and nor will it bequeath to Justice Antonin Scalia the empathy for his fellow human beings that he is sorely lacking. (By the way, Scalia, there is a scientific answer to the question of same-sex couples raising kids, and the answer is that you’re probably full of poop.) It will not magically make religious conservatives support queer rights. It will certainly not solve the serious, life-threatening issues that the queer community faces–issues more urgent than marriage rights, issues nevertheless ignored by many mainstream LGBT organizations.

I am also, needless to say, completely sympathetic to the arguments of people who chose not to use the profile pic because it’s the logo of the Human Rights Campaign, which is an organization I no longer support, either, and have recently stopped donating to.

But I’m not so sympathetic to the argument that posting the pic “does nothing.” First of all, you don’t know that a given person who’s posted it is literally doing nothing else to promote queer rights. And second, yes, it does do something.

It’s pretty damn cynical (and not exactly kind to one’s friends) to just assume that not a single one of the people who changed their profile pictures today has done anything else to support queer rights. None of them have voted. None of them have donated any money to any organizations. None of them have contacted any representatives. None of them have ever supported a queer friend who was coming out or facing bigotry. None of them have argued with anyone about queer rights.

Does changing one’s profile picture to reflect a cause they believe in negate everything else they might have done to support that cause?

It’s as though some people see others doing something small–changing a profile picture, posting a status–and then assume that that’s all they do about that particular issue. Probably not.

On Facebook, a bunch of friends shared this status:

Lots of comments about slacktivism tossed around today. I see on my feed people who contribute financially to the cause of equality; people who bear the brunt of homophobic bigotry; people who speak out in blogs, videos, social networking, newspaper editorials, and essays; people who encourage and motivate their gay friends when the crap gets to them; people who stay in contact with their representatives in government; and those who work for their candidates, attend meetings, and keep like minded thinkers informed. But I don’t see any slacktivism, not on this feed.

On that note, it seems that the people complaining about “slacktivism” today don’t necessarily realize that many of the people posting the profile pic are themselves queer. While it’d certainly be nice if all queer people “actually did something” about homophobia, many of them don’t have that option. For many of them, simply getting through the day is resistance.

Which brings me to my second point: that posting the profile pic does do tangible good. How do I know? Because people said so. I saw tons of posts today from queer friends talking about how good it feels to see all the red profile pictures, because it tells them that there are so many people who want to support them–who aren’t perfect allies, maybe (but then, who is?), but who care how the Supreme Court rules. For one gay woman who wrote to Andrew Sullivan, it made a huge difference.

Helping a queer person feel loved and accepted matters. It matters just as much as donating to a queer rights organization or marching in a protest. Perhaps it even matters more.

And also? If you’re queer and you don’t feel this way about the profile pics at all, that’s okay too. It doesn’t have to matter to you. But it matters to many of us.

I don’t care if you’ve chosen not to change your profile picture. Seriously. I don’t care what your reasons for it were. I’m not judging you. I’m not going to look through my friends list and convince myself that everyone who didn’t change their profile picture hates gay people or whatever.

But it unquestionably felt nice to see so many red squares on my screen every time I checked Facebook today. Probably not for any “rational” reason. It just felt nice to know that all these people are paying attention to what’s going on, that they care about what the Supreme Court decides and they care in the direction of equality.

Maybe most of these people really haven’t “done anything” for queer rights other than change their profile picture. That’s actually fine with me, because not everybody needs to be an activist, and it’s enough to know that all these people are part of the majority of Americans who now support same-sex marriage.

And if you’re not part of that majority, you probably went on Facebook today and saw all the people who disagree with you and who aren’t going to take your shit anymore. Maybe you argued with someone who had changed their profile picture. Maybe we even started to convince you.

I think it’s vital to embrace all kinds of activism, from the easiest and least risky to the most difficult and dangerous. It’s important not to lose sight of the concrete goals that still need to be accomplished, and especially to discuss how the conversation about marriage equality marginalizes certain people and ignores certain issues. But it’s also important to recognize symbolic gestures for what they’re worth.

Being part of a minority–and being an activist–can be lonely, stressful, and discouraging. But today I felt supported and cared for. That matters.

[Liveblog] Real World Atheism Panel at DePaul University

In a little under two hours, my friend Andrew Tripp and his student group, the DePaul Alliance for Free Thought, is hosting a fantastic panel called Real World Atheism: A Panel on Godless Activism and Cultural Relevancy. I’ll be liveblogging! The panel starts at 7 PM CST.

Some of the panelists should be familiar to you:

So, watch this space. (Unless I fail to get internet, in which case, womp womp.) It should be a really great discussion.

7:06 PM: We’re starting a bit late because Stephanie has not arrived yet. #ruiningeverything

7:18 PM: Stephanie’s still not here, but Andrew’s opening it up to questions. Ian’s introduction is up first! He says not to throw things at him, by which he of course means to throw things at him.

7:20 PM: Ashley’s introducing herself. She is studying Honey Boo Boo and the representation of poor white trash on television. Cool.

7:23 PM: Ian: “Atheism operates like other social justice topics. It intersects like other social justice topics….They are one and the same. They cannot be separated.”

7:25 PM: Sikivu is connecting the anti-abortion movement of the Religious Right with the commodification of Black women’s bodies throughout history; as slaves they were forced to bear children for their masters. Humanism, social justice, racial justice, etc. are all linked.

7:27 PM: Ashley came into atheism from the perspective of other social justice movements, such as women’s and LGBT rights. In LGBT and women’s activism you see that religion is a major factor, so she was initially surprised to see that many atheists didn’t see these issues as going hand-in-hand. “Atheism is necessary to have these discussions…having an awareness of religion and the problems that it brings” is necessary for these movements.

7:30 PM: Anthony is discussing African American humanism and the idea that this life is all you have, so you have to make the most of it–for instance, by doing activism. “We tend to think that atheism and humanism involve an embrace of everything that is modern,” but with African American humanism, you can actually deconstruct atheism and modernism. It’s a way for African Americans to say, “We’re human and we matter.”

Sikivu: There’s a contradiction in that we’re living in a state of first-world exceptionalism, and yet there is still such extreme racial segregation in America in terms of class, neighborhoods, etc.

7:34 PM: An audience member asks Ian about exceptionalism and racial inequality in Canada. Ian on exceptionalism: “America is not exceptional in doing that.” Canada does it too, but America does it bigger!

But there are elements of it that are unique to America. For instance, the KKK made it up to Canada but they basically got “laughed out of the country….Everyone kinda went, ‘Seriously guys, bedsheets?’” The way Americans from the North think of Americans from the South, that’s how Canadians think of Americans. I think everyone in the room just winced.

Ian thinks that’s not quite right, though. Canadian exceptionalism manifests as Canadians thinking of themselves as “the nice ones.” Americans were Mean and Evil and had slavery, and then the Black people escaped and went to Canada and everything was great! That’s what’s taught in schools. But not really though. Evidence: you hear the same awful stereotypes about First Nations people in Canada as you hear about Black people in the U.S. “Canadians are ‘nice,’ but only because nobody’s talking about it.”

7:39 PM: For a while, Canada’s immigration policies were “explicitly racist,” then they were “implicitly racist,” then they were “quasi-racist,” and now, Ian says, people think they’re too liberal and “let’s make them racist-er!”

Ian: “Because Christianity is such an integral part of colonialism…atheists can take it back in a way that non-atheists cannot and say that the founding principles are false.” But until we start listening to those who criticize colonialism and until we learn to look at how atheism fits in, we’ll only be repeating the same problems.

7:41 PM: Stephanie’s finally here, y’all! She’s talking about how we as atheists tend to keep seeing ourselves as “the reasonable ones.” Ashley: many atheists blame everything on religion and think that if it went away, everything would be fine. Blaming the South is wrong, too. Racism doesn’t just happen there. (Although, as a South Carolinian, she admits that, of course, it happens there too.) In some ways, the Enlightenment and the idea of empiricism can contribute to the problems.

7:43 PM: Sikivu points out that this framing of atheism is very narrow. Unbelievers of color see it differently. They know that religion has everything to do with white supremacy, the legacy of slavery, and global capitalism. She mentions that when she was growing up in South L.A. and it was predominantly white, there were almost no storefront churches. Now that it has so many more communities of color, there are many more. Why? Because of de facto segregation in business practices.

7:46 PM: Anthony on the idea that science is the answer to everything: “Science takes place in the context of cultural worlds.” The proof is things like the Tuskegee Experiment, scientists who claim that you can scientifically prove the inferiority of Africans, etc. So, science isn’t enough. If you still believe that atheists could never do this, talk to some people of color.

7:47 PM: Stephanie’s introducing herself belatedly. She’s been associate president of Minnesota Atheists for exactly 8 days now! (Congrats!) Stephanie grew up in Minnesota and Georgia. “In Georgia, everyone looked like me.” Her graduating class had one person of color, who was an adopted Asian man. She says she had a lot to learn in this subject.

7:48 PM: Debbie Goddard is here and she says she’s glad she came! She’s asking about the idea of “scientism” and the idea that African American humanists are poised to deconstruct it–how can people actually do this? How can they help educate the rest of the atheist movement?

7:50 PM: Ashley makes a disclaimer: “I’m obviously not part of the African American atheist movement. [audience laughs] Sorry! Spoilers!” Ian: “I don’t see color.”

She says that the critique of “scientism” is starting to move beyond the African American humanist community, though, even though it can be a tough sell for self-described “skeptics,” who make up a lot of atheists.

Sikivu: Prisoners of color are still being used for scientific experimentation, without consent. So science is continuing to use the bodies of people of color just as it did in the past.

7:54 PM: Ian: “I am a scientist. I science all day long.” He says he is able to deconstruct religion, sexism, racism, etc. by using his scientific training: recognizing where there is likely to be bias, where something might be explained by something else that we’re not seeing, and so on. When someone says that “women are just more nurturing than men,” he says that that’s just one explanation. Could it be something else? Ditto for Asians dominating at school because they’re “super smart,” for instance. So, maybe it’s not that science or skepticism are the problem; maybe it’s that we call something “science” and consider it infallible, and that’s not actually a scientific view.

7:58 PM: Ashley is pointing out, though, that there’s a difference between the process of science itself and the history of the scientific enterprise. Science creates hierarchies about which knowledge “matters,” such as quantitative over qualitative, empiricism over other methods of inquiry. The idea that you should look for alternate explanations and use the scientific method is a good one, but you’re doing it in the context of that hierarchy.

8:00 PM: Stephanie: We might be talking about two types of hierarchies. AHHHHH A;LSDF;ALKSDF.

Ashley: There are valid reasons for those hierarchies, but it means that there are some people and some types of knowledge that “don’t count.”

Ian agrees that we shouldn’t throw out everything that isn’t a randomized control trial. He refers to a survey of women who went to atheist conferences, asking them whether or not they felt safe. There are methodological problems with the survey and it’s not a randomized sample, but it still has useful data as long as we acknowledge the bias. But apparently some YouTube guy disagreed with him and basically said NO EVERYONE’S LYING. Well then.

8:02 PM: Anthony: Most of the invitations he gets to speak are about “diversity in the movement.” But we need to actually change the structure of these organizations. Who’s on the board, for instance, determines what they think is important. Make sure that people you think have the right agenda are holding positions of leadership. “We’re always talking about diversity, but the look of these organizations with respect to leadership doesn’t change.”

8:04 PM: Stephanie: Back to science for a bit. Apparently she’s writing a book. OOOOOO. Anyway. She has a question for the panel: Do those of you who are in leadership positions feel hampered by the constant need to address diversity?

Anthony: What’s important is when other people in leadership positions start talking about diversity, not just us.

8:06 PM: Audience member: Back to science. We idealize it. It’s very elitist; articles are not accessible to everyone, and all we see in the New York Times is “science has found…” Researchers have to compete a lot for funding and are under pressure to publish. So we end up talking about the findings that are “popular,” even if they’re not necessarily the best science.

Sikivu: African American girls are very eager to be involved in science at the middle school level, partially because they’re involved in civic and religious activities where they get a lot of encouragement. But when they get into their classes where they have white/male instructors who don’t perceive them to be as analytical, intelligent as their white male counterparts, it disabuses them of the notion that they can be scientists. And in the media, all you see in terms of scientific achievement are white males. Humanists/nonbelievers of color recognize that it’s not necessarily religion that prevents people of color from exploring science: it’s educational apartheid, institutional racism, etc. in secondary and higher education.

Anthony: This movement needs an appreciation for a diverse range of knowledges, not just science.

8:11 PM: Kate is asking about the fact that STEM education gets so much more attention/funding than other types of education, especially in terms of standardized testing. How does that play in?

Sikivu: Rigorous learning when it comes to science is getting closed out, in part because of Obama’s Race to the Top (or Bottom) initiative. You need college prep classes to get into college, and that’s not necessarily there.

8:12 PM: Debbie is asking about the idea that we need to do social justice work as atheists. When we try to work with others on topics like feminism, etc. because we’re threatening to them and critical. “Part of the atheist identity is, ‘Hi, and I’m an atheist and I think you’re wrong.’” It’s not like, say, a Jew and a Catholic working together, who can apparently bond over their mutual love of god. “How can we get into things like feminist activism and LGBT activism when the idea of being an atheist itself is so offensive?”

Stephanie: part of it is persistence. Minnesota Atheists has worked with the LGBT community for a while, so there’s a relationship. Finding a speaker about abortion rights was more difficult because there wasn’t a relationship like that already. Part of it is the need for destigmatization of atheists.

Ian marched with the BC Humanists in the Pride Parade, which is a really big deal in Vancouver. They carried a huge banner that said, “There’s probably no god so stop worrying and enjoy your life.” The religious groups were all in front of them, though (“There were a whole bunch of Christian groups, cuz they can’t just be Christians!”). He was expecting pushback but Vancouver is one of the most atheistic cities in the country (which is already pretty atheistic), and people were actually cheering out loud. Awww, brings a tear to my eye! But that didn’t happen in a vacuum; it happened after a long process. There were a lot of people who are very involved in the LGBT community and out atheists marching with the BC Humanists. Granted, atheists don’t have the same stigma where he’s from.

Sikivu: Black Skeptics has experience working with the faith community. “That’s been a long, arduous process. We’ve had to meet them on their own terms and on their own turf.” They’ve also been partnering with an LGBT African men’s group to address issues like suicide, homelessness, etc. and develop some sort of mentoring or other resources in the school system. You do have to be able to reach across the aisle and really listen to where people are coming from.

Debbie: “Maybe not using the word atheist sometimes?”

Sikivu: “We use the word atheist!”

Stephanie: Minnesota Atheists obviously does as well.

8:24 PM: Andrew made a face and I’m trying not to burst out laughing, dammit.

An audience member just asked a question about science and culture that took a very long time and I can’t really parse what he’s saying, but let’s see where the discussion goes!

Ian: “Unethical science is bad science. Ethics is part of scientific education, part of scientific process.”

Anthony: People who do unethical science think they’re being ethical…

Sikivu: Who determines ethics?

Audience member: “Without science, society is lost. Without heart, it is doomed. Without science, we are in the dark. But we have to be careful to understand what science means.”

Ian: “Oppression makes empirical sense from some people’s standpoint.” You want something that someone else has, so you’re going to take it. But that’s not a universal value system. Someone made the point that gender oppression creates benefits for men, but actually it doesn’t. You can use scientific inquiry to demonstrate that, and that it benefits everyone–men included, if you eradicate sexism. “Destroying systems of oppression also benefits the oppressor. Only in a very narrow sense does oppression benefit those at the top.”

Audience member disagrees. He doesn’t think oppression hurts the oppressor at all.

8:30 PM: Another audience member: We seem to be separating the hard science from soft science. If you say that we shouldn’t deify hard science, fine. But if you’re saying we shouldn’t deify all science, then you’re ignoring sciences that do take cultural context into account. We should be encouraging people to think scientifically. “We should push back against 73% of people saying Adam and Eve are real.”

Anthony: There has been no deification of the humanities and the social sciences; that’s not the problem.

Sikivu: “You have people waltzing around saying ‘We are all Africans’ without recognizing the offensiveness of that totalizing statement vis-a-vis the conditions of Africans on that continent and here in the United States.”

Ashley: That hierarchy of “some sciences are better than other sciences” is part of the problem. Your question demonstrates that this hierarchy exists.

Audience member: This relates to capitalism. The hard sciences drive profit, so they get the funding/attention.

Stephanie: There’s also the appeal to rationalism. It’s easier to understand physics than biology than sociology. UM I DISAGREE. But she’s got a point. Sciences like sociology are very complex, whereas “hard sciences” are more simple.

Ian: It’s easy to refute religious claims with “Fossils!” “But to understand how ‘Fossils!’ is part of a larger structural system that is subsumed within Christiano-capitalist histories…that takes a lot of work.” Ian cribs stuff other people wrote about capitalism (like Sikivu and Anthony!) because he just doesn’t have time to read all of that. There are purists out there who say “we can’t have these conversations” and who think that we can only talk about atheism, not social justice. “But until they clamp something over my mouth—well, over my fingers, because I blog–until they clamp oven mitts over my hands,” he’s going to keep talking about what he wants to talk about.

You have to use different methods for different questions.

8:38 PM: Stephanie: changing the topic a bit. Do we value people with social intelligence and leadership skills, or do we value the people who are able to stand up in front of the room and talk for an hour?

Ashley: There are definitely organizations who look towards those social things, but individuals in the movement are probably less drawn to that than people who are looking for leaders for an organization.

Stephanie: “If we want to act in the real world, is this something we need to value?”

Ian: Different situations require different skills. In some organizations there’s a huge turnover of leaders because people have different skills, and the needs of the organization change. He doesn’t think this is an answerable question.

Ashley: The Secular Student Alliance does a good job at this, at putting people in roles where they have to learn skills. (YAY!)

8:42 PM: Debbie: “I’m sorry. I have so many questions though!” It seems that at atheist/skeptic conferences, a lot of the people on stage were often scientists/researchers, not organizers/educators/activists, which may be why there was little diversity. But now there’s more of the latter group, and they are more tuned into what’s going on with the grassroots. Blogging helps. Wait, what was the actual question.

8:50 PM: Audience member: There isn’t just one atheist movement, but if there is one, what is the main goal?

Ian: “I would draw an analogy between the atheist movement and the Black community. What is the Black community? There is and there isn’t one.”

Audience: You didn’t answer the question.

Ian: I’ll let someone else answer the question.

Ashley: equality for nonbelievers, and critique of religion as an institution. The goal of critiquing religion fails if you’re unwilling to recognize all of these other things (social justice).

8:52 PM: Audience member: Is there a concern among atheists that instead of deifying a god, people will deify government, think that someone’s smarter than them and should make choices for them?

Ashley: “I don’t think any atheist thinks anyone’s smarter than them.”

8:53 PM: Stephanie: What common missteps do people make regarding social justice issues? For instance, telling you some fact they learned during Black History Month that shows they have no idea what’s going on?

Sikivu: People think that African Americans are so religious because they’re not educated or because of “failure to be enlightened by the science god,” and that’s something to push back against. So is the idea that science is going to be the “silver bullet” against Black religiosity.

Ashley: People wonder “How do I make people want to be a part of what I’m doing?” not “How do I reach out and do something for them?” Ian: “with them.”

Ian: “One thing I really despise is laissez-faire anti-racism.” The idea that if we just stop treating people like they’re different, then we’ll all just be equal! Yay! It’s not a liberal vs. conservative thing. The problem is that racism requires more attention, not less. You have to actually understand how it works. “Whenever someone says race doesn’t matter or race isn’t important, I immediately know they have no idea what they’re talking about.”

Anthony: One problem is the idea that what will produce the society we want is the complete eradication of religion. Rather, we should ask, “what can we do to lessen the impact of religion?” What can we do to prevent the most tragic consequences of it?

Stephanie: We have five minutes left, is there anything anyone wants to leave us with?

Ian: Everyone should read my blog.

Ashley: No, everyone should read my blog.

Ian: After you read my blog.

Stephanie: They’re all really close to each other.

Read all the FreethoughtBlogs!

AND IT’S A WRAP. Thanks, everyone! What an awesomesauce panel.

Totally Unsolicited Advice For Feminist Guys

Jezebel has a pretty good piece up about feminist men and what “we” (by which I take it the author means feminist women) want from them. Some excerpts:

[E]ven allegedly unfunny feminists acknowledge how extra-dry fighting sexism can be, and so we hope that when men join us, they, too can have a good, not always so self-serious laugh about gender roles and the complications in working to level the playing field….That said, it’s nice when a dude can see how utterly unjust the way women are still treated the world-over, and get a little pissed about it.

[...]You don’t have to call yourself a feminist to be welcome at this party. Not every dude is going to fly the feminist flag proudly, and that’s totally cool (not to mention, lots of kickass women don’t identify as feminists either).

[...]We don’t care how you got here, as long as you mean it. That means no sensitive ponytail man schtick to get more ‘tang. I’m sure more than one woman has met a male feminist who seems a little too preoccupied with our safety, a little too willing to jump in and rescue us, a little too into the narrative of the vulnerable woman and the man who’s here to show her he’s not like those “other guys.” Gross. Women need men who want to work as our equals and helpmates, not our protectors and guardians.

[...]You don’t have to be perfect….Feminism is about change and progress, and unpacking prejudice, not hairsplitting the backstory of every person who is out there saying good things.

[...]Dudes are important influences on other dudes when it comes to changing how gender divides us, and men who support these advances shouldn’t be afraid to point out when something is utterly sexist and bullshit.

[...]Don’t be afraid to challenge masculinity….When men show a comfort level with the spectrum gender exists on, it shows other men that gender isn’t binary, and redefines what being a “man” is anyway.

I think the piece brings up a lot of really good points, especially the one about not having to be perfect. Something I hear from many progressive men is a lot of anxiety about being “good feminists” and toeing the party line. My advice would be to not rely entirely on Internet Feminists for validation and criticism; try to find some trustworthy female feminist friends that you can ask for feedback that is actually constructive, as opposed to the destructive and counterproductive “call-outs” you see online. That said, if you’re a male feminist and a ton of women keep telling you that they disagree with a particular stance you have or feel uncomfortable with something you’re saying or doing, then it may be time to seriously reevaluate it.

The point about labels is also important. Many men call themselves “pro-feminists” or “feminist allies”; that’s cool. I’ll even accept the “humanist” and “equalist” and “egalitarian” thing as long as you don’t refuse to acknowledge that, in most societies and for most of history, men have had privilege over women. Ultimately, what you do matters much more than what you call yourself.

I have some suggestions of my own to add to Jezebel’s list. Note that these are my personal suggestions; the typical disclaimer that I Do Not Represent Feminism Unless Someone Has Nominated Me For Official Ambassador Of Feminism Without My Knowledge applies.

1. Do not lecture women about their own oppression.

Something really awkward that happens fairly often is when a feminist guy comes across an anti-feminist woman and proceeds to lecture her about how sexism is still hurting women and how she needs to be a feminist. Although the guy might be correct in this situation, and I would probably agree with him, feminist men should be mindful of the fact that most women spend our entire lives getting talked down to by men who think they’re experts on our personal experiences. If a woman says she hasn’t been impacted by sexism and doesn’t need this feminism stuff, perhaps respectfully point her to some resources on sexism and agree to disagree. It’s not your place to tell her how to interpret her own life, because even though you’re probably right, she can easily just tell you that she knows her own situation better than you do. And she’ll be right, too.

This, by the way, applies to all allies. White people shouldn’t lecture people of color about their own oppression. Straight people shouldn’t lecture queer people about their own oppression. And so on. Patrick put this really well:

it’s not my job to tell woman-identified persons how to be feminists, even if I disagree with something they have said. My job is to talk to male-identified persons, and *with* people who are not male-identified.

2. Understand and try to accept that you will not always be welcome in all feminist spaces.

Yeah, I get that it really sucks when you know that you’re a caring, informed, supportive ally, but some of the people you’re trying to ally yourself with still don’t necessarily want to include you all of the time. Personally, I believe that the vast majority of feminist activism should include people of all genders, but I also understand that many non-male people who are struggling to overcome the effects of sexism on their lives–harassment, assault, abuse, discrimination–need spaces in which they can feel safe, and sometimes feeling safe means being away from men. As a feminist guy, please try to understand that, even if it hurts to feel “rejected” from these groups or events.

3. Don’t expect a cookie.

I know this sounds harsh, but you are not entitled to extra praise or attention from women because you’ve deigned to support issues that are important to them. You may get that extra praise and attention in due course, though, and that’s great. And, luckily, most of the feminist men I know aren’t like this at all. In fact, many of them have told me that it’s actually almost uncomfortable when women tell them what wonderful people they are for supporting causes like reproductive rights or rape prevention. They feel that they’re doing the bare minimum of being a decent human being, but many women, accustomed to male friends, family members, and partners who treat feminism with hostility, feel compelled to praise guys who see it differently.

To sum it up, you probably will get a cookie respect and admiration from women. You just shouldn’t feel entitled to it.

4. Remember that your feminist credentials don’t mean you can pretend to be a sexist.

Just because you’re a badass feminist doesn’t mean that people are necessarily going to feel okay with you making sexist jokes “ironically” and “reclaiming” words like bitch and slut. If you do something like that and are asked to stop, your response should not be “Yeah well you know I’m totally a feminist!” You should either stop, or accept that the people you’re hurting with your language are not obligated to continue interacting with you.

(Of course, people really vary on this. When I genuinely trust people, men included, there’s actually very little they can say that would offend me. I have plenty of male friends who make sandwich jokes to me and I find them hilarious, not because “hur hur women can’t do anything but cook and clean and serve men” but because I trust these guys so much that the irony actually reads as irony. )

But the fact that you’re a Bona Fide Feminist Dude doesn’t mean that non-male people are required to be comfortable with everything you say and do, especially if it involves stuff that can read as sexism to those who don’t know you very well.

5. Use feminism to address issues that affect men.

Men are harmed by sexism in many of the same ways as women are (gender roles, for example). In some ways, though, their issues are a bit different. Because men make up such a substantial part of the prison population, they are more likely to become the victims of sexual assault in prison, and, in general, male victims of sexual assault face unique and serious difficulties in understanding what happened to them, speaking out, and seeking justice. Men are more likely to be the victims of violent crime and police brutality. And where being male intersects with marginalized identities, such as being queer, trans*, non-white, disabled, or poor, these issues become even more pronounced.

Many people (not just men) have noticed this and, unfortunately, decided to blame it all on women and feminism. These are called MRAs, but what they advocate for isn’t really “men’s rights” at all. It’s just anti-feminism.

MRAs do rightfully point out that non-male feminists don’t spend a lot of time addressing uniquely “male” issues. While I think that addressing power differentials in society will eventually bring about equality for everyone, I do think that these issues are important and should be discussed.

But women can’t take leadership of efforts to address problems that they have never experienced. I can’t tell people what it’s like to be a male rape victim–or how to support male rape victims–because I am not one and can never be one. Men, however, can use the “toolbox” of feminism–examining power differentials, paying attention to intersectionality, critiquing pop culture, etc.–to advocate for their own causes. That’s why we need feminist men who will be allies to non-male feminists while also leading initiatives to support other men, reduce violence against men, and eradicate sexism for everyone.

Edit: Alright, alright, I was just kidding about the damn cookies. Here, have one.

Giving Thanks

This is a sappy personal post.

This is not your typical Thanksgiving post, so first of all, you should read this and understand what this day actually commemorates. Hint: it’s not a happy awesome feast with Pilgrims and Native Americans and all that.

However, I still celebrate it in my own way because I think it’s important to have a day set aside for giving thanks. And sure, I could do that any day of the year. But doing it on the same day as everyone else does it feels more meaningful.

It would be nice if someday we started a new tradition of giving thanks on a particular day without associating that day with genocide. However, for now we have this Thanksgiving Day, and I’m going to celebrate it.

First of all, I’m thankful for writing. I’m thankful for having had the privilege to learn how to do it well and to be able to make time for it. Writing has always been one of the few things that can lift me out of my own mind, if only for an hour or so. The urge to write is like a phoenix–it burns like a fire and just keeps resurrecting itself if extinguished.

Writing has always been a key part of my development as a person. I’ve kept journals since I was 11 or so–that’s more than a decade of constantly watching myself grow and reexperiencing my own life. Whenever I’m not sure if I’ve really gotten better at this whole life thing, I can reread my old writing and see that I have.

Writing for an audience is something I’m a bit newer to, but even that I’ve been doing since high school. First it was mostly poetry and fiction; then I switched to personal narratives (like the one that got me into college!) and fiery op-eds.

I’m thankful for the change I’ve already made with my writing. I’m thankful that others have benefitted from it. I’m thankful that this matters.

I’m thankful for the internet. Go ahead and laugh. I know, it’s terrible and keeps us from enjoying “Real Life” and spending time with our families and whatnot. For me, though, that hasn’t really been my experience of it. The Internet has brought most of the other good things in my life to me–friendship, love, knowledge, inspiration.

I’m thankful for feminism, skepticism, and the rest of the ideologies I subscribe to. The reason I’m thankful is because it’s a personal thing. Feminism showed me how to find fulfillment in my relationships and taught me that I don’t have to take shit from anyone. Skepticism taught me not to automatically accept everything my brain tries to tell me, which is very useful when you have depression. Both helped me find a world beyond my own self.

I’m thankful for Chipotle, Red Bull, Diet Coke, Milanos, and Cheez-Its. Because I thought it’d be good to take a moment to appreciate the things that, for the most part, have sustained me this quarter.

And now, here comes the rainbowvomit part. Watch out…

To all the fellow activists I have met–I can’t even begin to explain how important this has been for me. I’ve met people who sued their schools when they were teenagers. I’ve also met people who are in their 30s, 40s, and beyond, and are still fighting for the changes they want to see in the world.

It’s that latter group of people that has particularly impacted me. For most of my adolescence and my college years, adults–by which I generally mean, people more than a decade older than me–were the people I dreaded interacting with. They were the people who rolled their eyes at me, told me to just wait till I’m older and working a shitty job and hating my boss. They said I’d “grow out of it.” They said it’d be different once I have my own kids. They said I’d stop caring. They crushed my dreams to such an extent that there was a period of time when I actually wanted to be a housewife–I thought that that’s how awful the world of work would be.

Now, I get that many young people are too flighty and idealistic and could probably benefit from being gently brought back down to earth once in a while. But as everyone who actually knows me ought to know, I am not such a person. After living with depression for nearly a decade, I have to fight to be optimistic and to see a purpose in life other than just making enough money to get by and popping out some children so that I’m not lonely in my old age.

That’s where meeting older people who still have that passion has really helped. The grown-up activists I know are wiser and more experienced than me, but they still value my ideas. More importantly, they’ve shown me that there is a way to be an adult while still being youthful.

To my partner–it’s weird writing this knowing that you’re going to read it, so I’ll just speak directly to you: thank you. I won’t say that life would be miserable without you, because that would be unhealthy (not to mention false). I was happy before you, and I’ll be happy after you—if there even is an after. I hope there won’t be.

But I will say that life with you is richer, sweeter, and more colorful. Thank you for the hug at Union Station; thank you for the phone call after that terrible date; thank you for those summer nights when we stayed up talking till 5 AM. Thank you for making me read The Fault in Our Stars (remember, if you don’t say the honest thing, it never becomes true). Thank you for that ridiculous night with the crappy wine. Thank you for making plans for the future. Thank you for worrying while I was in Israel. Thank you for asking me what you can do if the depression comes back. Thank you for making me make the first move. Thank you for refusing to own me and for never expecting me to shrink myself so that you can look taller standing next to me. Thank you for letting me be as independent as I need to be. You are the epitome of that timeless bit of advice: “If you love somebody, set them free.”

Yes, I just quoted a Sting song at you.

Deal with it, sweetheart.

And, finally, to my friends–I just don’t know where I would be without you. You are my proofreaders, my confidantes, my debate partners, my cheerleaders, my support system, my chosen family. Everywhere I go, physically and mentally, you go with me.

Things I learned from my (mostly) new friends: you can say, “Please stop that, it’s hurting me.” Feelings don’t have to make sense. Sometimes you need to be confrontational. There are worse things in the world than being a bit snarky. Just because someone didn’t mean to offend you doesn’t mean you can’t be upset about it. You don’t have to pretend to be okay.

Thank you for that. Thank you also for the Sunday night Google hangouts, the typos, and the hugs. Thank you not only for helping me, but for accepting my help in turn. Thank you for telling the rest of your friends about my blog. Thank you for showing me that going out and drinking and doing Young People Things doesn’t have to be uncomfortable and coercive. Thank you for helping me see that the people who say things like “Calm down” and “It’s not such a big deal” and “Stop complaining” are wrong and I don’t have to listen to them or keep them around in my life. Thank you for talking about me behind my back, because with you, unlike with anyone I’ve known before, I know that it’s going to be positive. And thank you, of course, for all of the <2.

Few of my friends live near me. They’re mostly scattered all over the country. People make fun of those of us who spend a lot of time online, but here’s the thing–not everyone has the privilege of being physically near the people they love. I never really found that at Northwestern. I found it through writing and activism.

And so, in writing if not in person, I thank the people who help keep me strong and passionate.

Skepticon and the Need for an Atheist Community

(Or, In Which I Rant Lovingly About Skepticon)

I haven’t written for a few days because I was off at Skepticon, which is the largest student-run atheist/skeptical conference in the U.S. It was amazing.

Spending a weekend with a combination of some of my best friends, a few of my greatest Internet Heroes, and a ton of cool people I didn’t know yet got me thinking about the concept of atheist communities–specifically, why we need them.

The idea of an atheist “movement” or atheist “communities” catches a lot of flak for various reasons. Some people are opposed to the idea that atheism should mean anything other than sitting on your butt at home on Sunday morning and not believing in any gods. That’s fine. For many of us, though, atheism informs and inspires what we do with the rest of our lives, and it’s unfair to deny the validity of that.

Others note the toxicity that certain parts of the atheist “movement” have–whether it’s Islamophobia, racism, misogyny, or outright bullying and harassment. Yes, these things happen in our community. But they’re not exclusive to our community. (Of course, I likewise disagree with the apologists who insist that because they’re not exclusive to our community, we should stop making a fuss about them. No, wrong. We should never stop making a fuss about them, because that’s exactly how we get rid of them.)

In other words, claiming that an atheist community is useless or counterproductive because of the nasty elements that it (still) contains misses the point. All communities contain nasty elements. The solution isn’t to disband the communities, but to kick those nasty elements out.

I wouldn’t blame anyone who chooses not to participate in our community because of that, of course. It’s up to you what you’re able and willing to deal with. Personally, I’ve found that the benefits of belonging to this community far outweigh the drawbacks, but that’s just me. And besides, for many years, I was one of those people who called myself “agnostic” (not realizing, of course, that almost all atheists are also agnostics) and shied away from atheist clubs and events. I had my reasons. Now I don’t.

Besides that, people who claim that there’s no point in having an atheist community don’t realize what it’s like to be newly deconverted or living in an area where atheism is heavily stigmatized. I met people at Skepticon who literally can’t be themselves anywhere but there (or on the internet, with pseudonyms). Doesn’t that matter?

Atheist communities can be both productive and fun, when done right. So what was it that was so special about Skepticon?

It was that I walked in and felt like I had come home.

Suddenly I was surrounded by people who really like the fact that I’m always ranting about psychology or social justice or whatever. I had so many interesting discussions all throughout the weekend, in many cases disagreeing with people. Tons of people wore Surly-Ramics (these amazing pieces of ceramic jewelry that an artist named Surly Amy makes to promote science and skepticism), and we compared ours.

Me, at home at last with my ridiculously political laptop. (Credit: Ellen Lundgren)

For this entire weekend, I didn’t have to apologize for caring. I didn’t have to say, “Sorry I’m being all serious, but…” I didn’t have to say, “I mean, there’s nothing wrong with being religious, it’s just that…” I felt like I was among hundreds of like-minded folks.

Some will say that this makes Skepticon like a “circlejerk” of sorts and that wanting to associate with people who are like you is wrong. I disagree. You don’t typically learn from circlejerks, and I learned a lot. And while it’s a bit immature to always avoid people you disagree with, there’s nothing wrong with escaping to your own “tribe” for a weekend. Constantly having to argue and defend your opinions can be exhausting. For me, Skepticon was like a vacation. An educational one.

Besides, there was plenty of disagreement at Skepticon. It just wasn’t about 1) the nonexistence of god, 2) the value of skepticism, or 3) the fucking awesomeness of science.

There were protesters outside the expo center. They were pretty nice as protesters go. One of them had a sign–I wish I remembered what it said verbatim–and it said something like, “Why such a big fuss over nothing?”

This is one of the biggest myths I hear about atheism, and it’s a myth stemming from the belief that god is all there is to live for. If there’s no god, there must be “nothing.” Nothing worth celebrating, nothing worth getting together for, nothing worth having conferences about, nothing worth getting up at 5 AM to drive 9 hours for. Nothing worth fighting for, nothing worth blogging about, nothing worth dying for. Nothing worth letting your kids stay up past their bedtime so you can teach them about it as they look on in wonder.

The thing is, Skepticon wasn’t just about atheism. Some of the talks were entirely about science and/or skepticism, like the workshop my friend Ben gave about pseudoscience, the talk PZ Myers gave about evolution (which I understood very little of; sorry PZ, you still rock), the talk about the Higgs boson, Rebecca Watson’s amazing talk on how evolutionary psychology is misused to promote sexist bullshit (which had us all squirming in our seats with laughter while simultaneously shaking our heads), and Jennifer Oulette’s talk about positive effects of hallucinogenic drugs and how our outdated national drug policy prevents further research on them.

Why does this matter? It’s not that theists can’t be good scientists or that they can’t promote skepticism and scientific literacy. It’s more that science takes on such an important status in the atheist community that celebrating it is par for the course. Walk into an atheist convention and you’ll see geeky t-shirts and hear references to xkcd and encounter people with PhDs in all sorts of cool scientific fields. My atheist friends and I once hung out over video chat and watched a live stream of Curiosity landing on Mars. When atheists talk about stuff, we’re rarely talking about “nothing” (or, rather, god’s nonexistence). We often talk about science, and science is absolutely worth celebrating.

Skepticon attendees counter-protesting. (Credit: Ellen Lundgren)

As for the more explicitly atheism-themed talks, theists might be surprised to know that nobody stood there repeating evidence for god’s nonexistence over and over. Greta Christina talked about how her atheism helped her cope with her father’s death and with cancer. She also mentioned how the atheist community donated so much money in the wake of her diagnosis that she was able to stop worrying about how to afford taking time off from speaking and traveling to recover. Hemant Mehta talked about supporting teenage atheists who are discriminated against in high schools. Darrell Ray discussed how religious ideas about sexuality have permeated even secular discourse, and how we can let go of them and stop feeling shame about our bodies and sex lives.

Oh, and JT Eberhard addressed common Christian arguments against atheism, finishing his talk with “But how do you know love exists?” JT knows love exists because we see evidence for it in how we act with one another, and in how he feels about his girlfriend. And then he proposed to her in front of the whole audience.

These are some of the things we talk about when we get together.

Skepticon is free, and its organizers are committed to keeping it that way. The money for it comes from donations and sponsorships. Just a few days before this year’s Skepticon, the organizers found out that due to an unexpectedly expensive contract, the fundraising had fallen very short. They posted a message asking the community for help.

And we gave them $6,000 in two days.

There is so much work ahead of us in improving our community–making it more accessible, more diverse, more friendly to women, more safe. But even as it is now, it amazes me, and I’m so happy to be here.

The new Surly I got this weekend to remind me to keep doing what’s important.

Choosing Our Battles: A Chick-Fil-A Rant

This is an expanded version of a rant that I spontaneously posted on this blog’s Facebook page yesterday.

[Also, snark warning. Haven't used one of those in a while!]

I’m going to talk about Chick-Fil-A again because I just can’t stop.

I keep hearing arguments that go something like this: “Yes, they donate money to icky crap. Yes, LGBT people and allies are entitled to boycott them. But then why aren’t they boycotting every other company that does unethical crap? Like Apple? Like Nike? Like McDonalds? Like Walmart? HUH?! Hypocrites!”

First of all. I’m sorry, but I can’t boycott every company in the world. Not even the best activist can do that. I can boycott some, though, and that’s exactly what I do. One reason I boycott CFA is because it is easier for CFA to just stop sending millions of dollars to bullshit organizations than it is for Apple and Nike to restructure their entire labor practices. Do they need to do this? Yes, absolutely. But it would take years or decades of public campaigns and government regulations.

Now, I’m not a labor activist or a corporate watchdog by profession. I’m a 21-year-old student who works part-time, writes a little blog part-time, and hopes to become a therapist someday. I need to choose my fucking battles.

And yes, I’m only speaking for myself here. But I think many of us who are speaking out against CFA are in a similar position. I wish we could all be full-time activists. But we can’t. So we choose our battles.

Second, let me be clear. If Apple came out and said, “Guilty as charged!” when asked about their use of child labor, I can guarantee you that the amount of protest would skyrocket. Because the problem with Dan Cathy and CFA isn’t just what they do–it’s how disgustingly, unapologetically shameless they are about it.

Sure, you could argue that opposing gay rights isn’t “as bad” as using child labor (however you managed to determine which units to measure badness in). My response would be that, while time and money are finite resources, care and concern are not. We writers and activists are perfectly capable of caring both about gay rights and child labor, trust me.

Third, there is something fundamentally different between what CFA does and what Apple, Nike, and Walmart do. The difference is this: corporations cut costs. If possible, they cut costs using unethical, shady, and borderline-illegal methods. Sure, there are a few that don’t, but many do.

The fact that this is something we can naturally expect doesn’t make it acceptable, of course. This is why we need that dreaded government regulation everyone keeps waving their hands about. So until governments crack down on the crap that Apple, Nike, and Walmart do, we can reasonably expect it to continue, because that’s the economic system that we’ve designed for ourselves.

But CFA isn’t trying to cut costs. In fact, it’s giving away huge sums of its own money. This is not a business move. This is not an attempt to keep the shareholders happy, because CFA (unlike Apple, Nike, and Walmart) is a privately-owned company with no shareholders.

No. CFA’s donations are motivated solely by its owners’ desire to impose their religious views upon this country. Full stop. That is why we protest.

One last detour to cover another related argument: “But we’ve known about CFA’s stance on gay rights for years! Why now? HMM?” First of all, people who make this argument: I applaud you for your attention to current events, politics, and charitable donations of companies whose products you consume. I, too, have known about CFA’s stance on gay rights for years, which is why I haven’t set foot in there for years. But not everyone can be so well-informed. I read the goddamn news as a hobby.

Second, better late than never. If you’re seriously trying to suggest that people shouldn’t protest against CFA because they should’ve done it earlier, your argument is the biggest failure I have ever seen. People are protesting now because of Dan Cathy’s public statements. People are protesting now because the story went viral and blew up in every media outlet imaginable. People are protesting now because it’s election season. People are protesting now because gay marriage has been in the news these days like never before.

People are protesting now as opposed to years ago for all sorts of social and cultural reasons, and those reasons do not necessarily include that the protesters are Big Hypocrites.

Both of these arguments–”But what about the other companies” and “But why now”–are intellectually dishonest, and they’re attempts to derail the conversation. If you’re trying to argue that we’re not doing enough for our cause, you might want to ask yourself what you are doing for it.

So I’m not going to mince words here. If the best argument you can muster against boycotting/denouncing CFA is YEAH WELL WHAT ABOUT ALL THE OTHER TERRIBAD COMPANIES, then guess what, your argument fails. Because I don’t see you doing anything about any of them at all.

And it really doesn’t surprise me that nobody I have seen making this argument–online or in person–has been someone who particularly cares about gay rights. Don’t care? Fine. I can’t make you. But please, get out of my way.

Oh, and trust me. Someday when I have the time and money, I am absolutely going after as many of those companies as I can. Are you going to help me?

I guess we’ll find out.


"Don't Feed the Trolls": Reexamining a Tired Maxim

Allow me to get meta here for a moment.

I’ve noticed that a very common response to nasty internet comments is to repeat the mantra, “Don’t feel the trolls.” It’s become “common knowledge” that you should ignore mean-spirited (as opposed to simply critical) comments on the internet, especially if you’re the one they’re addressed to, because people who leave such comments are only looking for a reaction from you.

Unfortunately, one side effect of this is that when someone complains about a nasty comment left on their blog or whatever, they often get a response like, “Oh, that’s not even worth thinking about. They’re just a troll. Don’t pay any attention to them.”

This response is certainly well-intentioned, and people who make it are generally trying to reassure the targeted person that the nasty comment doesn’t mean anything. However, there are several problems with it, and with the whole “Don’t feed the trolls” concept in general.

First of all, if someone’s upset about getting a nasty comment, don’t delegitimize their emotions. Feeling crappy when someone says something mean to you is a completely “normal” human thing, trust me. When someone does this in a public place (i.e. the internet) and in response to something you’ve worked hard on (a blog post, a YouTube video), it’s even more understandable that you’d feel crappy about it.

“Delegitimization” in this case refers to making people feel like their emotions aren’t legitimate–that they shouldn’t have them, or that they should just “get over” them rather than letting them run their course. That’s rarely what anyone means to do when they say things like “That’s not a big deal” and “That’s not even worth being upset over,” but that’s the effect such statements tend to have.

Furthermore, I’m no longer sure that “Don’t feed the trolls” is always the best response. True, you’re probably not going to change the person’s mind if you respond to their nasty comment. But something I’ve heard from many fellow activists is that when you write–and especially when you argue in a public forum–you’re not necessarily trying to change the mind of someone who holds the opposite position as you. Rather, you’re hoping to grab the attention of the onlooker who hasn’t really made up their mind yet, and who can definitely be swayed by a well-articulated argument.

And that’s assuming that people never change their minds once they’ve made them up, which, sometimes, they do. I’ve changed plenty of minds, and I’m really just starting to find my groove as an activist/writer.

I’ve also heard the argument that responding to nasty comments (or allowing them out of moderation, period) somehow “legitimizes” what they’re saying. First of all, I disagree that the mere act of responding to a comment makes that comment more “legitimate” regardless of the nature of your response. I don’t believe in turning the other cheek, so for me, responding to an attack is what comes naturally.

This attitude also presupposes that trolling comments are completely arbitrary, and that there’s nothing behind them other than a single person’s desire to be an asshole. That’s rarely the case. For instance, take the trolliest comment of all: “tits or gtfo,” which is often directed by men at women posting on the internet. If you dig a big deeper, you can use that meme to understand the culture that pervades certain male-dominated spaces on the internet. In these spaces–Reddit and 4chan are two noteworthy examples–men often view women as good for only one thing.

In these cases, deleting nasty comments rather than leaving them up and responding can be counterproductive. For instance, take this example, which some of my friends and I actually watched unfold yesterday. A female volunteer for the Secular Student Alliance (SSA) offered her help to one of the organization’s affiliates and was met with vile sexism. Publicizing this helps explain how sexism continues to be a problem in the secular community and leads us into a discussion of what can be done about it. (Sidenote: see the comments thread of that blog post for a great conversation about how to deal with nasty comments.)

And the upside in this situation is that people jumped into the original thread and challenged the guy who was being an asshole, and he ultimately apologized. That never would’ve happened if the people who challenged him had just shrugged and thought, “Don’t feed the trolls.”

All that said, there are certainly right and wrong ways to respond to nasty comments on the internet. Responding with anger (or, worse, hurt feelings) is exactly the kind of “feeding” that trolls actually do thrive on. The best responses are confident, snappy, and/or humorous, and show that the troll can’t get to you. One of the best comebacks I’ve ever seen was made by Alex Gabriel of the Heresy Club; someone commented, “i was searching google for circle jerk and ended up here,” and Alex responded, “Oh dear, that’s unfortunate. I can link you to some excellent porn if you’d prefer.”

Or, as my friend Kate, another badass writer and activist, says, “No, I will not feed the trolls. I will fucking trounce them and make them look like public idiots.”

None of this is to say that you should respond to nasty comments. Everyone has their own way of dealing with this sort of thing, and methodically demolishing mean-spirited arguments takes patience and energy that not everyone has all of the time. I’m merely suggesting that we should reexamine the cliche that one should never respond to trolls, not that everyone should do so all of the time.

Blogging (and other creative internet pursuits) can be exhausting and thankless. Do what feels right to you. And try not to end up like this infamous guy from xkcd: